Best Defenses to Carry College Football Teams to National Championships

David KenyonFeatured ColumnistJanuary 19, 2022

Best Defenses to Carry College Football Teams to National Championships

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    Defense doesn't always win championships in college football, but the 2021 Georgia Bulldogs joined the ranks of title-winning teams who didn't lean as much on their offense.

    Throughout the history of the sport, several of the most iconic national champions had defense-driven rosters. In recent memory, for example, the 2001 Miami Hurricanes and 2011 Alabama Crimson Tide put truly legendary units on the field.

    Thanks to Georgia's win, let's remember some other defenses that powered championship teams.

    While the choices are subjective, key factors are points allowed per game and yards allowed per play and per game. Performance in ranked matchups is also emphasized. For consistency, the group of champions is based on the NCAA's list.    

Honorable Mentions

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    • 2021 Georgia Bulldogs
    • 2017 Alabama Crimson Tide
    • 2009 Alabama Crimson Tide
    • 2003 LSU Tigers
    • 2002 Ohio State Buckeyes
    • 1993 Florida State Seminoles
    • 1987 Miami Hurricanes
    • 1985 Oklahoma Sooners
    • 1974 Oklahoma Sooners
    • 1964 Arkansas Razorbacks

1971 Nebraska Cornhuskers

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    One season later, Nebraska playmaker Johnny Rodgers won the Heisman Trophy. He also thrived in 1971, but the Cornhuskers rattled off an unbeaten year behind an unbreakable defense.

    All-American linemen Willie Harper and Larry Jacobson headlined the unit, which surrendered a mere 8.0 points per game. Nebraska posted three shutouts, allowed more than seven points in only three contests and ceded more than 17 just once.

    That outlier? Nebraska's 35-31 "Game of the Century" win against Oklahoma in a showdown between Top Two teams.      

    Nebraska sealed the national title with a dominant 38-6 Orange Bowl triumph over then-No. 2 Alabama.

1978 USC Trojans

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    Exactly like 1971 Nebraska, the 1978 USC squad featured a future Heisman Trophy winner and an overpowering defense.

    Running back Charles White totaled 2,052 yards from scrimmage, but USC leaned on a defense with a star-filled secondary. The position group boasted Ronnie Lott, Dennis Smith, Joey Brownerall eventual NFL starsand Jeff Fisher, a future NFL coach.

    Against the second-toughest schedule in the country, the Trojans gave up just 11.8 points per game. They limited four of five Top 25 opponents to 14 points or fewer.

    Thanks to an early victory over Alabamawhich proved crucial in the final votingand a Rose Bowl win against Michigan, USC earned its third championship in seven years.      

1979 Alabama Crimson Tide

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    But the Crimson Tide would have their revenge.

    After technically sharing the 1978 national title with USC, Alabama demanded the outright crown in 1979. Twelve opponents combined to scored a pitiful 67 pointsjust 5.6 per game.

    Although no defensive player landed consensus honors, defensive ends E.J. Junior and Byron Braggs, linebacker Tom Boyd and cornerback Don McNeal all secured All-America recognition. Alabama yielded a comically low 3.9 yards per pass attempt and 2.9 per rush, tallying five shutouts and holding 10 teams under the 10-point mark.

    Ohio State's loss in the Rose Bowl ensured Alabama's place atop the final rankings for the last national title of Bear Bryant's career.      

1981 Clemson Tigers

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    The story of Clemson's championship season in 1981 is pretty easy: When the defense gave up a season-worst 24 points in October, the offense scored 82. So, you know, it worked out.

    Star linebacker Jeff Davis spearheaded a defense that paced the country with 8.8 points allowed per game. While that 82-point outburst may suggest otherwise, the Tigers didn't have a great offense. They managed three wins despite scoring 13 points or fewer.

    Clemson needed this stifling defense. And it constantly excelled.

    Herschel Walker-led Georgia, the reigning national champs, mustered three points. Eighth-ranked North Carolina scored eight, and No. 4 Nebraska lost to Clemson 22-15 in the Orange Bowl, a victory that sealed the Tigers' first national title.    

1991 Washington Huskies

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    How's this for a fun fact? Washington's 1991 defense included a future No. 1 overall pick in the NFL draft and a Secret Service agent.

    The former was Steve Emtman, a D-tackle with two Pac-10 Defensive Player of the Year honors. The latter was linebacker Dave Hoffmann, who earned the honor in 1992. They headlined one of the most impressive teams in college football history.

    As the offense ended No. 2 nationally at 41.2 points per game, and the defense matched the ranking with 9.6 allowed. Seven of the Huskies' 12 opponents failed to crack seven points.   

    Washington split the 1991 championship with Miami, which also finished 12-0 behind a fantastic defense.

1992 Alabama Crimson Tide

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    The fearsome front of John Copeland and Eric Curry propelled Alabama to its first championship since Bryant's tenure ended.

    While holding teams to a nation-low 9.4 points per game, the Tidenow under the direction of former Bryant assistant Gene Stallingssurrendered a minimal 1.7 yards per carry. They also led the country in yards allowed per pass (5.1) and takeaways (37).

    The defense posted three shutouts, and only two of Alabama's 13 opponents topped 13 points.

    In the Sugar Bowl with the national title at stake, the Tide rolled top-ranked Miami and Heisman-winning QB Gino Torretta 34-13.      

1997 Michigan Wolverines

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    Michigan's elite defense is best remembered because of one player.

    While his contributions on offense and special teams certainly helped, cornerback Charles Woodson won the Heisman Trophy. He snagged seven interceptions, including one in the Rose Bowl victory over Washington State and Heisman finalist Ryan Leaf.

    Woodson had plenty of help, of course. Defensive end Glen Steele, linebacker Sam Sword and safety Marcus Ray each received All-America recognition, helping Michigan lead the nation in both points (9.5) and yards (206.9) allowed per game.

    Michigan ended the season a perfect 12-0 and shared the national title with 13-0 Nebraska.  

2001 Miami Hurricanes

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    This much talent on a single defense is pure madness.

    Among the starters, All-American safety Ed Reed, cornerbacks Phillip Buchanon and Mike Rumph, defensive linemen Vince Wilfork, Jerome McDougle and William Joseph and linebackers Jonathan Vilma and D.J. Williams all became first-round NFL draft picks.

    That's all before mentioning reserve safety Sean Taylor and corner Antrel Rollewho later went in the opening roundor six other contributors on defense who would be drafted.

    It's no surprise this unit is the backbone of 2001 Miami's spot in the conversation as the greatest college team ever. The 'Canes held eight opponents to eight points or fewer, allowing a nation-leading 9.8 points per game and generating an absurd 48 takeaways.

    Miami wrecked Nebraska 37-14 in the Rose Bowl, finishing 12-0 and winning the last of the program's five titles in a 19-season span.

2011 Alabama Crimson Tide

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    Alabama's defense in 2011 didn't have quite as many eventual first-rounders as 2001 Miami, but the Tide weren't far away.

    In short, they had top talents everywhere. Nine key contributors on this 2011 unitdefensive lineman Jesse Williams, linebackers Dont'a Hightower, Courtney Upshaw and C.J. Mosley, cornerbacks Dre Kirkpatrick, DeQuan Menzie and Dee Milliner and safety Mark Barronwould be All-Americans in their Alabama careers, along with reserve linebacker Trey DePriest and safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix.

    And the Tide controlled every offense.

    Oddly enough, lower-division Georgia Southern scored a season-high 21 points. But no other offense surpassed 14 points on Alabama, which atoned for a 9-6 regular-season loss to LSU with a 21-0 triumph in the national championship. On that night, LSU crossed the 50-yard line on exactly one drive and totaled only 92 yards.

    For the season, Nick Saban's squad yielded a staggeringly low 3.3 yards per snap and 8.2 points per game.


    All recruiting information via 247Sports. Stats from, or B/R research. Follow Bleacher Report CFB Writer David Kenyon on Twitter @Kenyon19_BR.